Apple dominates podcast listening, but iHeart Radio thinks it's found a way around it
- Podcast listening is exploding. But Apple has a tight grip on how people listen to podcasts and by extension, discover new ones.
- Radio giant iHeartMedia is getting around the discovery challenge with its own podcasts by promoting them on its own radio stations.
- Not all radio listeners are interested in listening to podcasts, and podcasts have to be adapted to run on broadcast radio, though.
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Podcast listening is exploding. But most podcast listening happens through Apple's podcast app that's baked into its own devices, which gives Apple a tight grip over how podcasts get discovered.
IHeartMedia has found a way around that. IHeart bought Stuff Media (the company behind shows like "Stuff You Should Know") in 2018 to become one of the biggest podcast producers, with 17.5 million listeners in March, surpassed only by NPR, according to Podtrac. IHeart is also a radio powerhouse, reaching 275 million US listeners per month across more than 850 stations.
Now it's started to use that radio footprint to promote its podcasts on its own radio stations. Starting in March, iHeart has been running up to 24 30- or 60-second spots a day to push people to what it considers its 150 top-tier podcasts. In some cases it's also using its stations to premier podcast shows making them available as podcasts.
'A unique advantage'
"Apple has a unique advantage, and if you don't, you're probably going to be at a disadvantage," said Bob Pittman, chairman and CEO of iHeart. "We have a model where we don't have to spend on advertising. We use our own promotional power. That gives us a unique advantage. We pick the ones we want to push, and we push it."
Pittman is putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to podcasts: he's launching his own show this month, aimed at entrepreneurs, called "Math & Magic: Stories From the Frontiers of Marketing."
Until recently, iHeart was cross-promoting its podcasts, but all that was doing was reaching other podcast listeners. That left out the two-thirds of people in the US who don't listen to podcasts, said Conal Byrne, president of the iHeartPodcast Network, citing Edison Research.
IHeart's first big indicator of success with using the radio for podcasts was when it put true crime podcast "Disgraceland" on 150 stations in March. The show's downloads soared, from 800,000 downloads a month to 2.2 million.
Since then, iHeart has aired other full podcast episodes on the radio such as "Family Secrets," a show about people's hidden pasts; and "Monster," a show about the Zodiac killer.
"Discovery is becoming near impossible," said Byrne. "Apple has very limited real estate, and its promotional work is very manual. We have an unfair advantage right now."
There are natural compatibilities between radio and podcasting. A lot of NPR podcasts started as radio shows, for example.
Do radio audiences want to hear podcasts?
But iHeart was taking some risk in airing podcasts right on the radio. Three-fourths of its stations play music, and people tuning in to hear music might not want to sit through 30 minutes of talk.
IHeart is learning how much it can get away with disrupting its existing radio programming. It was careful to match "Disgraced," which has a rock music theme, with rock radio stations that already have a talk component, for example. And it's looking at stats like broadcast retention and podcast downloads to see if the strategy's working.
It's great that a terrestrial radio company like iHeart is investing in podcasting, and there's probably room to grow the podcast audience, said Erik Diehn, CEO of podcast company Stitcher. Along with matching the podcast to the radio station, podcasts also can't just be dropped into a radio broadcast; they have to make sure they're safe for public broadcast (i.e., no swearing). They also might have to be edited to fit the heavily structured broadcast programming calendar.
There are also limitations to using the radio to air podcasts, many of which have a narrow audience, said Hunter Walk, a former Google and YouTube exec who now runs venture capital firm Homebrew.
"What iHeart is doing makes sense and will help the most popular podcast categories (such as real crime) or celebrity-driven releases pick up some extra audience, but there's incredible value in the long tail of niche pods, and that discovery opportunity cannot be solved by a one-to-many format such as broadcast radio," he said.